THE UNCONSCIOUS CIVILIZATION
Our society, John Ralston Saul argues in his 1995 CBC Massey Lectures, is only superficially based on the individual and democracy. Increasingly it is conformist and corporatist, a society in which legitimacy lies with specialist or interest groups and decisions are made through constant negotiations between these groups. The paradox of our situation is that knowledge has not made us conscious. Instead, we have sought refuge in a world of illusion where language is cut off from reality. Reconnecting language to reality, clarifying what we mean by individualism and democracy, making these realities central to the citizen’s life, identifying ideologies in order to control them, these are among the first elements of equilibrium which Saul proposes in these lectures.
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John Ralston Saul bemoans the fact that, “In a society of ideological believers, nothing is more ridiculous than the individual who doubts and does not conform.” Undeterred, he likes to celebrate doubt, seeing it as a necessary antidote to the childlike certainty purveyed by what he calls “our enormous, specialised, technocratic elites”.
The provocative Canadian author of Voltaire’s Bastards and The Doubter’s Companion is one of the principal guests at next weekend’s Word Festival at the Manning Clark Centre, ANU. His most recent book, The Unconscious Civilization, a collection of essays based on lectures given at the University of Toronto, will be launched at the festival. It’s calculated to rouse readers from their topor; indeed, after reflecting on Saul’s analysis of the rhetoric and propaganda that “normalises the untrue”, it’s impossible to contemplate the contents of a television news bulletin or a newspaper with quite the same equanimity.
Saul believes that “passivity is one of ideology’s most depressing effects. The citizen is reduced to the state of the subject or even of the serf.” We suffer, he says, “from an addictive weakness for large illusions. At the time of each obsession we are incapable of recognising our attitude as either a flight from reality or an embracing of ideology.” As examples of facts that are known but have little apparent effect on our behavior, he cites the 50 million people killed since peace began in 1945 by wars that are fed by arms trafficking; the undernourishment, low life expectancy and crushing debt endemic in the Third World; and the Western world’s unfinanceable levels of unemployment.
Our passivity has its roots in the dominant ideology of our time: a creeping corporatism (first cousin to fascism) which encourages individuals to give their primary loyalty not to society – to a concept of public good – but to groups. Corporatism “claims rationality as its central quality. The overall effects on the individual are passivity and conformism in those areas which matter and non-conformism in those which don’t.” Saul is deeply critical of the contemporary equation of individualism with selfishness, which “represents a narrow and superficial deformation of the Western idea. A hijacking of the term and – since individualism is a central term – a hijacking of Western civilisation.” Our unconsciousness is causing us to lose “to the darker side within us and within society” certain crucial struggles – struggles between humanism and ideology, between democratic individualism and corporatism and between language and propaganda. Ironically, notes Saul, the search for self-knowledge promoted by Freud and Jung has accelerated our retreat into unconsciousness and encouraged us to embrace the notion that what should properly interest the individual is himself rather than society or civilisation. “Freud and Jung set out to conquer the unconscious. However, by sending us back into the arms of the Gods and Destiny, they may instead have pushed us to cling hysterically onto the unconscious…It is as if our obsession with our individual unconscious has alleviated and even replaced the need for public consciousness.”
We are being let down by contemporary philosophers. Philosophy, asserts Saul, must be a matter of public debate “or it is nothing. Philosophy as just another specialist corporation is a flagrant return to medieval scholasticism.” Socrates is Saul’s hero. He contrasts Socrates’ virtues with the traits shown by his chronicler, Plato: “Socrates – oral, questioner, obsessed by ethics, searching for truth without expecting to find it, democrat, believer in the qualities of the citizen. Plato – written, answerer of questions, obsessed by power, in possession of the truth, anti-democratic, contemptuous of the citizen.” He credits Socrates with facilitating the escape from the “totems of inevitability” (the Gods and Destiny) – an escape that made Western civilisation possible.
But now we’re “enthralled by a new all-powerful clockmaker god – the marketplace and his archangel, technology”, and Socratic questioning is being undermined by an education system that over-emphasises vocational training designed to prepare the young to accept the structures of corporatism. Too great an emphasis is placed on learning how to operate computers. “Basic technological training is, of course, useful. but to treat it as anything more than that, is to lock students into technology that will be obsolete by the time they graduate. The time wasted will also deprive them of the basic training in knowledge and thinking that might help them adjust to the constant changes outside.” Saul notes the oddity of classrooms full of students behind machines “where they can be educated in isolation by something less intelligent than a human. This sacrifices one of the primary purposes of education, particularly in a democracy – to show individuals how they can function together in a society.”
Critical though he is of educators, particularly in universities, Saul reserves his sharpest barbs for economists. Despite its dominance over the last quarter of a century, he says, economics “has been spectacularly unsuccessful in its attempts to apply its models and theories to the reality of our civilisation.” In particular, Saul skilfully shows how wrong-headed an ideology privatisation is. He lays the blame for stagnant economies on a bloated and unproductive managerial elite whose passion for privatisation can only slow the economy by encouraging capitalists to put into basic production and services the private energy and money that would be better spent on “front-line capitalist activity”.
Democratic governments should maintain their role in the provision of basic services. But democracy requires active participation on the part of its citizens and corporatism is busy subverting involvement in democratic processes. Corporatism puts self-interest before “that level of shared disinterest known as the public good” that only government can nurture. We cannot leave the public good to the market, for the market cannot learn; “being devoid of disinterest, it has no memory. There can be no such thing as a natural market equilibrium.”
Though Saul suggests how we might begin to free ourselves of our corporatist somnolence, he doesn’t – indeed can’t – pretend to have detailed prescriptions. He advocates a practical humanism that can be no more than a “voyage towards equilibrium without the expectation of actually arriving there”. Reason helps on the journey, but it’s only one of the human qualities upon which we can draw; we must also look to common sense, creativity, ethics, intuition and memory.
And the key to the whole endeavour is self-knowledge. Saul cites the question posed by John of Salisbury in 1159: “Who is more contemptible than he who scorns knowledge of himself?” Without self-knowledge there can be no real individualism, the kind that brings with it the obligation to act as a citizen.
Voltaire’s Bastards was the first salvo in Saul’s analysis of contemporary social crises.
It’s an exhaustive and penetrating analysis of the way in which the faculty of reason has been warped and misused by Western ruling elites. The Doubter’s Companion, subtitled A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense, pursues many of the same concerns, but in a more immediately digestible fashion, employing lashings of acerbic humour and tart irony.
No less spirited than its predecessors, The Unconscious Civilization continues to address vital and fundamental questions about what makes a good society. Saul suggests directions we may take in search of enlightenment but he never attempts to impose answers. His purpose, as in the earlier books, is to shake unquestioned certainties, to focus on the issues that really matter.
I urge you to read John Ralston Saul. But don’t expect to remain unchanged afterwards.
Civilisation is teetering on the edge of an abyss of ignorance and delusion. The Western world is governed by an ideology that deifies the corporation as the most effective unit of society, individual citizens are unable to reflect upon or criticise the fundamental direction their society is taking, public discourse is controlled by special interest groups, universities have abandoned the field of free inquiry for the narrow lanes of corporate sponsorship and vocational training.
Globalisation and the marketplace rule as gods. This is no Brave New World, but John Ralston Saul’s view of our civilisation at the end of the 20th century.
This alarming and inspiring book consists of the five Massey lectures, which Saul delivered on Canadian radio in 1995, the same year that Eva Cox delivered her Boyer lecture series, A Truly Civil Society. Some of the ground they cover is similar, but Saul’s arguments are both broader and far more detailed.
His target is the corporatism that he believes now rules the Western world and which is steadily eroding democracy. The solution is a return to the notion of the public good and greater citizen participation in public life.
In a convincing analysis that ranges across the centuries, Saul argues that when any one ideology runs amok, a crisis inevitably develops. The divine marketplace is such an ideology. And when it fails, as it did in the Great Depression, it is government that will be expected to again rescue us.
Saul is a champion of government. It is, he says, the only powerful public force over which the citizenry has control. Its demonisation by business interests has turned the public against their own instrument. The corporate managers have foisted their own preoccupation with cutbacks on government, but “cuts can’t produce growth or prosperity or effectiveness…We must force ourselves out of the corporatist obsession with form in order to concentrate on the content that is at stake.”
Saul is equally critical of universities for abandoning their true role: to encourage people to think. As for the deconstructionists now entrenched in academia, “they have effectively attacked our addiction to answers, but in such a way as to undermine the validity of our questions”.
One of the genuine intellectual high points of the year in Canada is the CBC’s annual broadcast (and Anansi’s subsequent publication) of the Massey Lectures. In recent years, these broad-range overviews of the human condition have been provided by such distinguished contributors as Conor Cruise O’Brien, Jean Elshtain, Robert Heilbroner and Charles Taylor.
The 1995 Massey Lectures, Canadian writer John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization, are not only a thoroughly worthy addition to the series, they’re also, to my mind, the best work of popular political philosophy produced in this country in a decade or more.
Saul takes on those sizable topics – economics, democracy, citizenship, education, language and ideology – for which the Massey Lectures are intended as a platform. His central idea is that democracy and its source of legitimacy, the self-governing individual citizen, have been displaced by a structure of self-interested groups – a system that Saul dubs “corporatism” – that is fundamentally anti-democratic and that espouses a false version of individualism, one that dispenses with any substantial notion of a common good or disinterested public judgment.
These remarkable lectures offer a delicate, almost classical defence of the individual as citizen. Saul rejects any entity that would interpose itself between citizens and their independent thinking about the good of the society in which they live. Thus, under the heading of corporatism, Saul is pointing to a vast array of groupings, irrespective of their location on the political spectrum, form logo-familiar business corporations to professional elites to the “identity politics” of competing multiculturalisms. He isn’t against corporations and the like as such, but only insofar as they put their interests ahead of the public good.
Indeed, every group that insists on its partial interest over that of a commonly shared mutual interest in the fate of the real world is, in Saul’s view, the perpetrator of soul- and mind-stealing ideologies that propel us into the state of “unconscious civilization” referred to in the title of these talks.
At the same time he also rejects all models of the individual other than as citizen, first and foremost. Again, he doesn’t deny other aspects of the person, rather, his resistance manifests itself when minor features of our existence would displace those that are central to our being.
Whether it’s the marketplace notion of the individual as consumer, the anarchist version of the individual as the opponent of government, or the angry populist seeking immediate satisfaction in “direct democracy” or referendums, Saul holds out for the doubting, broadly educated, moderate-in-all things ancient ideal of the engaged citizen, one willing to thoughtfully participate in the “slow, tedious grind of representative democracy.”
It’s rare to encounter a thinker who so unflinchingly engages the largest generalizations about our lives together, and even rarer to find one able to sustain a plausible argument in favor of rethinking, in some cases even rediscovering, our fundamental assumptions.
The Unconscious Civilization seems to me markedly more satisfactory than Saul’s 1992 bestseller, Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, which deals with similar subject matter, often to telling effect, but far less coherently than his Massey Lectures.
In The Unconscious Civilization, Saul succeeds in synthesizing the unease that many of us have felt but have been unable to clearly articulate about the present era, with its deification of the marketplace, ruthless “downsizing” of the public sphere and its transformation of erstwhile citizens into badly educated consumers adrift in the fantasies of malls and cyberspace. If you’ve ever felt the slightest doubt about some authoritative figure telling us, in tones of adamantine confidence, that we’ve got to cut health care and post-secondary education, wipe out the debt instantly, lower taxes, obey the dictates of the globalized market, and start up Windows 95 all in one fell swoop, John Saul’s pretension-puncturing common sense will be a welcome antidote.
What makes these lectures stand out – apart from their conversational accessibility, lightly worn erudition and conceptual brilliance – is that Saul comes about as close as anyone in attaining an often-claimed but seldom-achieved goal, namely, transcending the conventional boundaries of Left and Right.
He’s not hostile, as Marxists often are, to the capitalist marketplace, but unlike private-sector fundamentalists, he’s suspicious of current marketplace ideologies “and of our passive acceptance of whatever form globalization happens to take.” Once the notion is challenged that “the economy” is the category to which we ought to subsume all other human interests, considerable space is opened for actual thinking, rather than merely reciting the current tepid verities.
Much of what Saul thinks will strike many as heresy, and perhaps nowhere will this seem more the case than when he proposes to resurrect the individual’s relationship to government.
“The most powerful force possessed by the individual citizen is her own government,” Saul asserts. Dissenting from those who would demonize the public sphere, Saul counters that “the individual has no other large organized mechanism that he can call his own….Government is the only organized mechanism that makes possible that level of shared disinterest known as the public good. Without this greater interest the individual is reduced to a lesser, narrower being limited to immediate needs.”
Arguing against both those “who talk about individualism as if it were a replacement for government,” and “others who see it as the enemy of government,” Saul asks, reasonably enough, “How then could individuals possibly replace government? In a democracy they are government. This myth of the triumphant, unattached individual is pure romanticism.”
Saul is perceptive about the fine points as well as the broad strokes.
His scathing criticism, for instance, of the current corporate obsession with “aligning basic education with the needs of the job market” tallies with everything I’ve experienced in two decades of classroom teaching. “What the corporatist approach seems to miss is the simple role of higher education – to teach thought,” Saul reminds us. “A student who graduates with mechanistic skills and none of the habits of thought has not been educated. Such people will have difficulty playing their role as citizens.” Amen.
It’s not enough to say that this is an uncommonly good book about the common good. The Unconscious Civilization is a kind of intellectual last chance for both young geniuses and old hedgehogs everywhere. Notwithstanding Saul’s praise of doubt, I’ve seldom felt so certain that this is a book that one must read.
It may be that civilizations, like individuals, are often ignorant of their own true natures. While most people at any given time act with what seems to be good sense, it is entirely possible that they exist in an illusory state, blinded by ideology, or by a sentimental view of themselves. That is certainly John Ralston Saul’s contention about modern industrial society in The Unconscious Civilization, a book that brings to fruition the themes the Toronto-based novelist and social critic developed in his earlier studies, Voltaire’s Bastards and The Doubter’s Companion. Broadcast last fall as the 1995 Massey Lectures on CBC Radio, The Unconscious Civilization maintains that society is unwittingly destroying the one instrument with which it can forge a livable future – democracy. The most eloquent of Saul’s three books on this subject, The Unconscious Civilization has a compact, incisive elegance that bristles with epigrammatic wit and quotes from sources as diverse as Plato and economist Adam Smith.
For Saul, the greatest threat to the democratic way of life stems from what he calls “corporatism.” Some of Saul’s critics have misunderstood his use of this term, as if it referred only to large business corporations. But for Saul, IBM, Mussolini’s Fascist party and government bureaucracies are all corporatist: all are undemocratic, expansionist, and tend to co-opt the loyalty of their members from society as a whole. Saul contends that today, one-half to one-third of the workforce of Western democracies is engaged in the corporatist administration of the public and private sectors. He calls these people the “managerial elites,” and sees them as the unwitting prisoners of practices and ideologies that favor their own corporatist structures and undermine the health of the broader culture.
Saul believes that the corporatists are influencing government policy – and the general direction of society – to a dangerous degree. He argues that big business has been particularly successful in getting its own ideology widely accepted, from its insistence that the “global marketplace” is inevitable, to the new emphasis on business and technical training in schools and universities, to governments’ current obsession with eliminating deficits. (While Saul admits that deficits must be tackled, he thinks that business’s emphasis on national debt reduction is a screen to hide its real aim: the scaling down of governments. Governments, he argues, have traditionally defended society from the excesses of the corporatists, and have extracted a share of their profits to help support social programs.)
For Saul, society’s general acceptance of the corporatist view as a kind of “uncommon sense” amounts to an unconsciously self-destructive act that will lead to collapsing social infrastructures, weak governments, a passive, culturally ignorant workforce and a degraded environment. Yet, his rather bleak view does not prevent him from making some highly original attacks on the corporatist mentality. Most notably, he argues that the vast bureaucracies of the managerial elites – which, following Adam Smith, he sees as the unproductive sector of business – “are a far more important factor in keeping the economy in depression than is any overexpansion of government services.”
This is Saul’s crucial point: that big business itself is the source of much of society’s waste and inefficiency. But like so many of his seductive generalities, it suffers from a lack of detailed examples and analysis to back it up. Yet, the overall slant of his argument is forceful, and when he does tie it to specific cases, he can be powerfully persuasive, as in his examination of President Bill Clinton’s failure to introduce a comprehensive medicare system for all Americans. As Saul shows, the corporatist mentality is so ingrained in the medical establishment that even those experts who were in favor of universal medicare created such a complex, unworkable plan that it alienated almost everyone. And so, in the end, the democratic will of the electorate was thwarted.
Saul offers some important ideas for taming the big corporations, including international agreements that would establish decent minimum wages and tax rates – Saul estimates that, in the global economy, the large companies pay an average of only 13 per cent on their profits – as well as strong environmental protection laws. Such measures would prevent them from holding countries to ransom by threatening to move where the cost of business is lower.
Yet, ultimately, the governments that would have to create such legislation are no better than the people who elect them. At the heart of Saul’s book is a vision of human beings as more that consumers and employees, motivated by the narrowest kind of self-interest. The Unconscious Civilization is a plea to revive the old, humanistic idea of the citizen – a concerned, thoughtful individual dedicated in a disinterested way to the good of the society as a whole. Only the democratically combined actions of such people, Saul believes, will ever slow the corporatist juggernaut.
Mais à quoi donc pense l’homme occidental et moderne et quel étrange langage parle-t-il? demande John Ralston Saul dans son dernier essai décapant et pertinent, La Civilisation inconsciente. Le titre contient la réponse à ces deux questions fondamentales. Et il s’agit simultanément d’un livre et d’un auteur importants. L’une des révélations de la décennie.
Saul, qui est canadien, international, francophone et francophile a, avant que de se lancer avec fracas, en bousculant les certitudes reçues, dans la philosophie, été banquier, industriel et romancier de grand talent, maniant l’acuité et la cruauté de Swift dont il est très proche. Illustre parrainage!
Voilà quatre ans, Saul publie un ouvrage d’une immense érudition, volumineux et révolutionnaire, Les Bâtards de Voltaire. Il y entreprenait une critique radicale de la raison technocratique, de ses origines, de sa morgue. En six cent cinquante pages, nourrissant son propos d’exemples français et américains, japonais et allemandes, l’auteur montrait, preuves à l’appui, que la technocratie qui sévit autant dans le public que dans le privé (en particulier les grandes entreprises) dévirait plus ou moins directement du modèle jésuitique, que l’ordre séculier fondé par Ignace de Loyola pour les besoins de la Réforme catholique avait mis en place un cadre fécond. Et les technocrates, qui ont toujours à la bouche le mot raison, en font un usage indu. Pour Saul, ce terme-là, dans sa signification contemporaine, n’a rien à voir avec ce qu’entendaient David Hume, d’Alembert ou Voltaire il y a deux cents ans. Usurpation! lance Saul. Poursuivant sa charge, il conçoit un dictionnaire philosophique portatif, avec l’ironie qui fait tant défaut à ses confrères, Le Compagnon du doute, proche de Flaubert. Livre remarqué. Les idées reçues, sur les Jeux olympiques, la déréglementation économique, le progrès ou la chaîne d’information américaine CNN y sont disséqués, bouleversés, avec beaucoup de bon sens et, surtout, le sens de l’humour. Cette modernité qui ébahit certains intellectuels n’éblouit guère Saul.
Mais n’allez pas le comparer à Kant! Pour le Canadien, bien sévère mais pas complètement injuste, le grand Emmanuel représente « un marécage qui s’est infiltré dans nos esprits en séparant l’intellect de la réalité » (en quoi il s’oppose à son contemporain Hume). Le diagnostic n’est pas faux. Troisième volet logique, cette Civilisation. Pourquoi est-elle inconsciente? Parce qu’elle se dévoie dans les jeux de la scolastique moderne, d’autant plus redoutable qu’elle est invisible, ou presque. Celle des experts en tout, qui usent de jargons, rhétoriques et dialectes. Qui refusent d’informer. Qui possèdent la solution avant même que le problème ne soit posé!
Et Saul d’affiner sa définition. Il parle, désormais, de corporations et de corporatisme, ce qui dépasse la seule technocratie et induit, selon lui, « une course implacable vers la médiocrité ». Le corporatisme, explique-t-il, revient à légitimer les groupes d’intérêts et pas le citoyen. Pis, l’arme utilisée par chacun de ses groupes est l’idéologie, laquelle n’est pas naturellement compatible avec la démocratie, telle que Solon en a jeté les bases (certes, imparfaites) à Athènes. Le corporatisme peut même s’accorder à la dictature. Son champ d’action, c’est le langage, en employant une syntaxe et des expressions qui occultent et éloignent de la réalité, qui transforment la perception courante. En cela, le corporatisme est totalitaire, comme l’étaient le marxisme ou le nazisme. Saul poursuit les réflexions d’Orwell et de Hannah Arendt.
On se gorge de mots : marché, globalisation, technologie, village mondial, Internet. Autant d’idoles. Le citoyen, ou l’individu, présenté comme souverain, vit dans l’illusion d’un certain confort. Saul, qui a acquis une réputation mondiale et est même régulièrement consulté par de nombreux responsables politiques, ne parle pas gratuitement. Son esprit aigu a aussi décelé un nouveau mal : la force du corporatisme, c’est l’abolition de la mémoire. La civilisation est inconsciente parce que les experts et les groupes oublient, plus ou moins volontairement, l’Histoire, y compris la leur, et se livrent en permanence à la prospective, aux prédictions (c’est la confusion entre le présent et le futur). De surcroît, la corruption est devenu un phénomène naturel et, selon le philosophe, ce ne sont pas les personnes traduites en justice qui changent véritablement la situation. La purge, paradoxalement, indique que la corruption augment. C’est un leurre.
Saul, n’est pas un boutefeu. Pas un révolutionnaire. C’est un réformateur, un humaniste, voire un utopiste doux lorsqu’il invite le citoyen à agir pour reprendre le monopole du langage aux experts.
Ce Canadien qui démasque les discours vides, trompeurs et filandreux, fait penser à Alan Sokal, ce physicien américain qui a épinglé certains abus et impostures d’une autre corporation, les intellectuels français.
Edj : Comment se caractérise le discours corporatiste ?
John Saul : D’abord, il entérine l’idée que la réduction de la démocratie peut se justifier pour un meilleur fonctionnement de la société. Ensuite, il suggère que le bien public peut coïncider avec l’intérêt des groupes de pression économiques et sociaux. Et, enfin, il propose que les critères de rentabilité s’appliquent au service public.
Edj : Vous connaissez bien la France. Ce pays souffre-t-il de corporatisme aigu ?
JS : Le mouvement imprimé depuis cent cinquante ans est général en Occident. La France, il est vrai, a été la pionnière puisque c’est Napoléon I qui lui donna sa forme moderne. Depuis la révolution industrielle, le phénomène s’est accentué jusqu’à ce que Weber et Durkheim lui confèrent une légitimité intellectuelle. « Les corporations, a écrit ce dernier, vont devenir la division élémentaire de l’État. »
Edj : L’opinion a donc raison de blâmer les énarques pour l’immobilisme de la société…
JS : Absolument. L’ENA est la dernière-née des corporations officielles. L’idée qui a présidé à sa création il y a cinquante ans était généreuse. Les premières promotions, issues de la Résistance, étaient pétries d’éthique et donnèrent de grands commis de l’État. Aujourd’hui, on privilégie la forme au détriment du contenu, faisant du mode gestionnaire l’aboutissement suprême de toute administration. Ce renversement conduira les promotions futures à se déterminer en rapport avec les intérêts propres de leur corporation plutôt qu’en fonction du bien public.
Edj : A vous entendre, on est tous exposés à devenir corporatistes.
JS : Jamais l’humanité n’a connu un corps élitaire aussi important. Tous ceux qui travaillent dans l’administration, publique comme privée – soit environ 30% de la population active -, sont un jour ou l’autre susceptibles d’adopter une attitude corporatiste. Mieux informée, plus éduquée que celles qui l’ont précédée, cette élite demeure cependant en porte-à-faux avec le reste des citoyens. Les vrais débats sont occultés ou détournés, car elle ne peut que se faire le porte-parole des intérêts de son groupe. L’Histoire nous apprend que l’élite n’a jamais été autant prospère qu’en période de crise. En France, l’aristocratie, la petite noblesse et les brasseurs d’affaires n’ont jamais été plus contents d’eux que durant la période précédant la Révolution. Cet effet de « bulle » c’est rendu possible par la taille et la prospérité des élites aujourd’hui.
Edj : A partir de quant devient-on corporatiste ?
JS : Lorsqu’on a renoncé à son individualisme. Si vous pensez que les décisions doivent être prises par des experts, en petit comité, entre collègues, vous êtes corporatiste. Si, dans vos relations de travail, vous retenez de l’information de crainte de perdre votre autorité, vous êtes corporatiste.
Edj : Pourquoi ?
JS : Parce que cette attitude caractérise la peur de l’autre. En morcelant ce savoir et cette intelligence, on les rend inutilisables pour le bien de la collectivité. Le génie de la civilisation ne peut pas s’exercer.
Edj : Quel nom lui donneriez-vous ?
JS : C’est l’intelligence tout simplement. L’Occident s’est construit sure elle. Ce n’est pas l’administration qui a fait l’Occident, c’est cette intelligence caractéristique de l’individu. On a tendance à dire que les qualités humaines cardinales sont au nombre de six : le bon sens, la raison, l’instinct, l’éthique, la mémoire, la créativité. Or nous n’utilisons dans nos sociétés qu’une seule d’entre elles : la raison.
Edj : Que pensez-vous de la politique française actuelle ?
JS : Tout ce que je peux dire, c’est que les citoyens français ont fait preuve, lors des élections législatives de juin dernier, d’une grande santé politique. Devant un discours corporatiste pur fruit, émaillé de mots comme « inévitable », « rentabilité », « raison », ils on eu le courage de refuser net le discours sur l’inéluctable. Ce geste est important pour la France mais aussi pour le reste de l’Occident : c’est la première fois depuis une trentaine d’années qu’un refus si net, si clair, d’une perspective gestionnaire s’exprime dans une démocratie.
Edj : Mais, parallèlement, le FN continue de progresser…
JS : Les extrémismes font leurs choux gras du corporatisme des élites. C’est grâce à lui que l’extrême droite a acquis en dix ans une reconnaissance politique. Retrouvons le chemin d’un authentique engagement, et les Haider, les Le Pen vont se dégonfler comme des baudruches.
Edj : Dans le fond, vous prônez un retour à l’idéal républicain.
JS : L’essentiel n’est pas là. Chaque nation a ses références historiques. La clé, c’est la participation active du citoyen a la vie publique : susciter le débat sans énoncer de solutions d’avance, attitude technocratique par excellence. A cet égard, l’arrivée en politique d’une nouvelle génération peut changer des choses. L’élection de nombreuses femmes au Parlement est symptomatique. Une femme isolée est obligée de jouer l’homme, mais, en groupe, elles peuvent amener un point de vue différent sur la société.
Edj : La mondialisation, les technologies récentes, sont-elles les nouveaux lieux communs de notre époque?
JS : Je ne suis pas contre la mondialisation, mais il faut bien comprendre quel rôle elle doit jouer. Pourquoi diable nos sociétés devraient elles être menées par quelque chose d’aussi bête que le marche? Le problème aujourd’hui ne consiste pas à opposer l’Etat nation à l’international mais a contrer la montée de l’extrême droite. Il faut trouver les moyens de casser ce discours qui empêche de mettre à contribution l’expérience et la sagesse communes au profit du bien public. Préoccupation qui fut toujours celle des premiers penseurs du libéralisme comme Adam Smith, et dont les croises du tout libéral feraient bien de s’inspirer.
The idea of an over-arching ideology, or “grand narrative” theory of history embracing politics, economics and philosophy has gone out of fashion nowadays. Those who have tried it, such as John Gray and Francis Fukuyama, have generally been vilified for what many see as excessive hubris. The very concept of ideology, or of envisaging a radically better world, seems redundant to the post-modern mentality. Yet the central thesis of this erudite and brilliantly readable book is that we have now fallen under the insidious grip of the third major ideology of the twentieth century: corporatism.
Corporatism, Saul argues, arises from an excessive worship of the free market. Contrary to the prevailing assumption that democracy is stimulated by unfettered capitalism, he believes that we are now governed by an elite of managers and bureaucrats who undermine democracy by excluding the ordinary citizen from the decision-making process and placing it in the hands of self-appointed interest groups. These elites fail to fulfil their social responsibilities because, instead of investing in things that are necessary for a healthy economy, such as a truly comprehensive education system and a well-funded public sector, they merely expand themselves into endless layers of “specialists”. Saul goes as far as to compare them with the elites that existed before the French Revolution and the collapse of the Roman Empire. In both epochs, a bloated aristocracy built “a wall between themselves and reality by creating an artificial sense of well-being on the inside.” Meanwhile, in the West today, between 30 and 50 million are unemployed and the elites can only respond by engaging in more rounds of self-perpetuating cuts.
Saul maintains that corporatism is not a new political philosophy as such. In fact, it can be traced back as far as the Florentine Renaissance and has resurfaced periodically throughout the twentieth century. It was first given intellectual shape by the sociologists Max Weber and Emile Durkheim in the 1890s. Durkheim said: “The corporation’s rule secures for the state the deferential citizenry…and so frees it to govern on the basis of ‘morality’ itself.” Later, corporatism reached its zenith under Mussolini, who claimed that it was a system characterised by “efficiency, professionalism and management by experts.” He saw his function as heroic leader as being merely to pacify the populace and ensure that they didn’t get out of control. He summarised the flow of history thus: “Liberty was for caveman, but civilisation meant a progressive diminution in personal freedoms.”
Saul’s argument is fascinating because he insists that, ironically, although the Western powers defeated communism and fascism – both extended forms of corporatism – they have now been seduced by the same notion that society is better run by competing interest groups operating within a free market. The problem with this philosophy, Saul avers, is that the free market creates an “unconscious civilisation” which suppresses any form of individual free expression or awareness of the greater collective good.
In this way conformity crushes the creative essence of the economy. Companies are increasingly forced to bring in talent rather than nurturing it within their own ranks. Meanwhile, cuts continue to demoralise the workforce and productivity diminishes. As the president of Petro-Canada said: “You can’t shrink to greatness.” Saul believes that the West has been engaged in what he describes as a “slow, masochistic suicide” over the past 25 years, although the statistics he produces to prove this point are open to debate.
Surprisingly, given the complexity of his argument and the savagery of his attack upon existing trends, the book has found support in some exalted places. John Howard, the Australian Prime Minister, and Lloyd Axworthy, the Canadian equivalent to Robin Cook, are among those who have supported it publicly, and it has risen to the top of the best-seller lists in their respective countries. What should make it doubly impressive to the British reader is that, although it was first published in Canada three years ago, many of the characteristics that he ascribes to a corporate society can be observed in current UK Government policy.
For example, he points to the way the elites champion technology as the means to a more open and efficient society while in reality, he says, they continue to control the flow of information, but are incapable of seeing beyond their own particular fields. “Knowledge,” he says, “is more effectively used today to justify wrong being done than to prevent it.”
Within this context, politicians are forced to claim that historical phenomena such as globalisation and the money markets are beyond their control.
Saul quotes Tony Blair describing how the global market “imposes huge limitations of a practical nature – quite apart from reasons of principle – on macro-economic policies.”
As a result, politics itself becomes shallow and personality-driven, and is rendered effectively powerless to address the real problems of unemployment, social breakdown and the economy. Most perceptively, Saul points to the increasing use of referenda and similar mechanisms which present the illusion of direct democracy while the real, complex questions are dealt with behind the scenes. George Grant described referenda as “decisiveness…at the expense of ‘thoughtfulness’.”
In many ways, Saul’s argument might sound like the sort of jeremiad one expects from one of the disenchanted Left but for the fact that it shares a number of things in common with the argument put forward by the late, conservative historian Christopher Lasch in his book The Revolt of the Elites. Both men observe that the elites are full of loathing for themselves as they are for the masses, because they place excessive value on individualism and consumerism.
Unfortunately, like Lasch, he offers little in terms of concrete solutions to the problems created by corporatism. For the public sector he tentatively suggests a return to old-style nationalisation, claiming that privatising public utilities diverts important financial resources away from new areas of investment and growth.
At one point he even puts up an astonishing defence of “the nanny state”, claiming that “A great deal of what it does, it does very well”.
More profound, however, is his plea for a radical reform of the education system which would place more emphasis on the need for individual self-understanding and nonconformity. He reminds us that to “know thyself”, in the words of Socrates, lies at the heart of any civilised society. The tragedy is that our educators and especially our universities have been co-opted into the corporatist system, becoming obsessed with operating as businesses rather than with instilling deeper philosophical values. Time and again Saul stresses the need for us to remember that knowledge of the past is vital for self-understanding. As Cicero said: “He who does not know history is destined to remain a child.”
Saul argues that one of the seductions of corporatism is that it constitutes what Jung called a kind of “gentle and painless slipping back into the kingdom of childhood…the paradise of parental care.” Increasingly, education is seen as being of strictly utilitarian benefit and neglects to answer the big questions about who we are and what sort of society we should live in. It will come as no surprise to Saul to learn that the British government is again considering allowing 14-year-olds to leave school in order to join apprenticeship schemes.
Saul’s outstanding piece of polemic, which at heart is a plea for a return to a now forgotten set of humanistic values., should, at the very least, be read by those who are responsible for determining the curriculum. It might remind them that education is about more than teaching people how to read and write. After all, there’s not much point in learning to do either if it merely enables you to understand the next redundancy letter.
Writing in the same iconoclastic spirit he brought to Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, Canadian writer Saul offers a damning indictment of what he terms corporatism, today’s dominant ideology. While the corporatist state maintains a veneer of democracy, it squelches opposition to dominant corporate interests by controlling elected officials through lobbying and by using propaganda and rhetoric to obscure facts and deter communication among citizens. Corporatism, asserts Saul, creates conformists who behave like cogs in organizational hierarchies, not responsible citizens. Moreover, today’s managerial-technocratic elite, while glorifying free markets, technology, computers and globalization, is, in Saul’s opinion, narrowly self-serving and unable to cope with economic stagnation. His prescriptions include eliminating private-sector financing from electoral politics, renewing citizen participation in public affairs, massive creation of public-service jobs and a humanist education to replace narrow specialization. His erudite, often profound analysis challenges conservatives and liberals alike with its sweeping critique of Western culture, society and economic organization.